By STEVE ROTHWELL
NEW YORK — Worries about the outlook for growth in China and a slide in the price of oil pushed the stock market to its biggest loss in almost seven weeks Monday.
Investors are nervous about China following a run of soft economic data that suggests growth in the world’s second-largest economy is slowing. The worries about China helped push down the price of oil. That in turn weighed on energy stocks.
The stock market has struggled to gain traction this month as investors have weighed signs of an improving economy in the U.S. against evidence of slowing growth in both Europe and Asia.
“We’ve got China weighing down on stocks,” said Kristina Hooper, U.S. investment strategist at Allianz Global Investors. “The lack of transparency there always creates greater uncertainty.”
The Standard Poor’s 500 index (^GPSC) dropped 16.11 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,994.29. The loss was the biggest one-day decline for the index since Aug. 5. The index is down 0.5 percent this month.
The losses were broad, and all 10 industry sectors that make up the SP 500 declined. Energy stocks were the second-biggest decliners, slumping 1.4 percent as the price of oil fell. Companies that rely the most on consumer spending, such as entertainment and media conglomerates and retailers, fell the most.
The price of oil dropped on concerns that Libya’s production is picking up at a time when global economic indicators point to weaker demand from countries including China. Benchmark U.S. oil fell 89 cents to $91.52 a barrel. Analysts say U.S. oil could test the $90 mark sometime this week.
Smaller companies were also among the biggest decliners as investors shunned the riskier parts of the market.
The Russell 2000, an index which tracks small-company stocks, fell 1.5 percent, more than other indexes. The Russell has dropped 3 percent so far this year, compared with gains of 7.9 percent for the SP 500 and 3.6 percent for the Dow.
Some analysts say investors should regard any pullback in stock prices as an opportunity to add to their holdings. Recent reports on the manufacturing and the service industries have been strong. Hiring is picking up and inflation remains tame.
“The fundamentals in the U.S. have been coming in strong, beyond expectations,” said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management. “It’s a modest pullback. If anything I would take it as an opportunity to build positions.”
On Monday, stocks were also hurt by a report showed that fewer Americans bought homes in August as investors retreated from real estate and first-time buyers remained scarce.
If the trend continues it could dent consumers’ confidence, said Allianz’s Hooper.
“It really speaks to much of middle-class America. The largest component of their net worth is their home,” she said. “It could really put a damper on consumer spending and consumer sentiment.”
The National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes fell 1.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.05 million. That followed four months of gains. August sales fell from a July rate of 5.14 million, a figure that was revised slightly downward.
St. Louis-based chemical firm Sigma-Aldrich (SIAL) was among the day’s winners. The company’s stock surged $34.03, or 33.2 percent, to $136.40 after agreeing to be acquired by Merck, a German drug company. Merck is paying $140 a share from Sigma-Aldrich, a premium of 37 percent over Friday’s closing price.
Apple (AAPL) also bucked the slump, logging a small gain of 10 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $101.06. The technology company said that it has sold more than 10 million iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models, a record for a new model, in the three days after the phones went on sale.
In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline fell 2.7 cents to $2.585 a gallon, heating oil dropped 3 cents to $2.687 a gallon and natural gas rose 1.3 cents to $3.85 per 1,000 cubic feet.
Metals remained weak. Silver continued its recent descent, falling to its lowest level since the summer of 2010.
The price of an ounce of silver fell 7 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $17.77 an ounce. Precious metals, including gold, have been pressured by the recent strength of the dollar, low global inflation and rising stock markets. Gold is trading close to its lowest price since the start of the year. Gold edged up $1.30, or 0.1 percent, to $1,217.90 an ounce. Copper fell five cents, or 1.7 percent, to $3.04 a pound.
U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year government bond, which falls when prices rise, dropped to 2.55 percent from 2.58 percent.
In currency trading, the dollar weakened against both the Japanese yen and the euro.
The Japanese yen has been trading at six-year lows against the dollar in anticipation that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next year while the Bank of Japan will maintain an easy monetary policy. On Monday, the dollar edged down to 108.77 yen. The euro rose a fraction to $1.2849.
The first step is to know how much you currently owe on each credit card, said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit financial counseling organization.
If you don’t know, you’re doing personal finance wrong.
“Burying your head in the financial sand won’t solve anything — there are no answers down there,” she said.
Another indicator that you are heading for trouble is if you find yourself near the maximum amount allowed on your lines of credit. If you’re considering applying for new lines of credit because the existing ones are maxed out, you’ll only make matters worse, NFCC’s Cunningham said. “The last thing you need is more credit,” she said. “Instead, probe to see why you are relying so strongly on credit cards to support your lifestyle.”
It’s important to minimize “percentage utilization” and maximize “credit available,” said Kevin Gallegos, vice president of the Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network, a company which helps consumers with debt issues.
“If you have a credit card with a limit of $10,000, and you owe $3,500 on it, that’s 35 percent utilization,” he said. “Anything over 35 percent is considered is high, a warning sign that you may be living beyond your means and can impact credit scores.”
Consumers who are current on their vehicle payment are a step ahead of their counterparts; if you’re behind, you’re on a rocky financial road.
If you are facing a money crunch, prioritize your bills, including making payments for your apartment or house and your monthly auto loan.
Another indicator that you are nearing serious financial issues is you have overdrawn on your checking account more than twice in the past 12 months. The overdraft fees are only adding to your dilemma. Instead, use free budgeting software or load an app from your bank that allows you to check your balance as often as you need to, even if it is daily. Some bills take longer to clear, so your current balance may not reflect that.
If you lack an emergency savings account, you could be headed for disaster if you run into car problems, lose your job or have a minor accident that prevents you from working. Only 51 percent of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt, according to a Bankrate.com (RATE) report. The survey also found that 28 percent of people have more credit card debt than emergency savings, the highest percentage in the past four years while 17 percent have neither emergency savings nor credit card debt.
“Since the recession, people recognize how important emergency savings is,” said Bankrate’s McBride. “They have less appetite for credit card debt. Despite that recognition, people have had a difficult time making headway for savings in an environment where income is stagnant.”
Receiving collection calls and notices is another sign that you aren’t living within your means. Many creditors are willing to negotiate your payment amount or waive some fees temporarily so consumers who try to seek a remedy before their debt goes into collection are facing less damage to their credit score.
Consumer spending can easily wind up being bad debt, which is debt that is used for the consumption of goods with little to no long-term value or goods with diminishing value, said Jason Ayala, a private wealth adviser in Phoenix for Ameriprise (AMP), the financial services company.
“An example of bad debt is carrying credit card debt that was used to subsidize a standard of living that exceeds your income,” he said. “If used appropriately, debt can be a very powerful and beneficial tool — if not it can derail even the best laid financial plans.”
Even if it was a one-time occurrence, applying for a credit card cash advance, payday loan, title loan or borrowing from your 401(k) or IRA in the past 12 months is a sign that you need to regain control of your finances.
“Adding new debt on top of old is a financial death trap,” Cunningham said. “Balances grow, and you end up paying interest on the interest. Digging out of debt is impossible unless this practice stops.”
If you are spending more than 28 percent of your gross salary paying rent or your mortgage that hampers your ability to maintain a moderate standard of living. Some lenders approved mortgages for homeowners to borrow up to 35 percent of their income during the past decade, but experts advise against spending that close to the threshold. Consider refinancing your mortgage, obtaining a roommate or at least cutting back on other bills or expenses. The 28 percent mark is a good rule of thumb, but it may vary depending on where and how you live, Gallegos said.
“Someone who lives in the heart of San Francisco or Manhattan and doesn’t own a car may have a higher percent for the home category, but a lower allocation for transportation,” he said.
Being able to maintain your current lifestyle without using your credit cards is a good sign. In July, total consumer revolving debt, which includes credit card debt, rose by 7.4 percent from June.
“This is a time when consumers can and should be saving more of their personal income compared to driving up debt,” Gallegos said.
Consumers should aim to save 10 percent of their income.
Living within your means on a daily basis and using credit cards only in real emergencies is the best option.
“Paying down credit card debt is one of the best investments you could ever make since the effective rate of return easily can approach 20 percent,” he said. “In addition, having no credit card debt is in itself a financial cushion. It will require strict discipline, belt-tightening and a revision of your goals.”